Dear Father John, I’ve heard that God forgives all sins. But, I’ve also heard something about an “unforgivable sin”. It seems there’s a contradiction there. What is that all about? Is there really a sin that God won’t forgive? And, what happens if I commit that? What do I do then?
This probably is a reference to the following Gospel passage: “Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:31-32). Here is how the Catechism explains this passage: “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss” (CCC 1864).
The basic idea is simple. God’s mercy is infinite. He is always willing and able to forgive us. But he won’t force his forgiveness upon us. If we refuse to accept the grace that God offers us (and this grace is always offered through the Holy Spirit) then we cannot benefit from that grace. We are free to refuse the gifts that God offers us. That is the “unforgivable sin.” But it is not unforgivable because God’s mercy is limited. Rather, it’s unforgivable because of our refusal to accept God’s forgiveness. The faucet of God’s mercy always works, so to speak, but to get the cleansing water we need to turn it on.
It is worth recalling that we may reject God’s action or turn away from him at one point in our lives, and then repent and turn back to him later. As soon as we turn back, humbly repentant and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, God’s mercy will touch and renew us. The only way that we will be forever separated from God’s love is if we stubbornly and consistently refuse the invitations of his grace (the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives) up to the moment of our death. Here again is how the Catechism puts it: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end” (CCC 1037).
Practically, this means that we all must humbly and joyfully continue to seek a deeper knowledge of God and a constant obedience to his commandments and inspirations. For this, prayer, study, the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), and good Christian fellowship are all critical. If you want to reflect a little bit more on the reality of sin in general, you may find my video conference on this topic useful. It is called “The Anatomy of Sin.”
I hope this helps. God bless you!
In Him, Fr. John
Art: Christ the King Catholic Church (Ann Arbor, Michigan) – interior Holy Spirit window, Nheyob, 5 August 2013, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported; Unusual faucet, Coupeville, Whidbey Island, Washington, Joe Mabel, 30 March 2013, CC-SA; Interior Scene [Confession], Jean Alphonse Roehn (1799-1864), unknown date, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, PD-Worldwide; all Wikimedia Commons.